Kaisiki Natakam, a heart warming and intensely human tale, has gripped the imagination of
commoners and kings down the centuries. After a long hiatus, it was revived with a performance on
19th November 1999.
In the Varaha Puranam, Lord Vishnu tells the story to Mahalakshmi about how he adores being
worshipped through dance and music. Kaisiki Natakam, which is traced back to the 13th Century,
tells the story of a lowborn “Chandala” called Nambaaduvan who devotes one night every year, on
Kaisiki Ekadasi, to singing the praises of Nambi Perumal. On that day one year, he was travelling to
the temple when a Rakshasa (demon) stops him and demands his flesh. After great persuasion,
Nambaaduvan tells the Rakshasa that he would return to be eaten by him after completing his
annual offering of music to Nambi Perumal. Convinced of the Chandala's sincerity, the Rakshasa
allows him to proceed to the temple. After singing all night in front of the Lord, Nambaaduvan is in
his way to the Rakshasa to fulfill his promise. At that time, Lord Vishnu himself, in the guise of an
old man, stops him and asks him to take another route, warning him of a dangerous Rakshasa who
eats all in his path. Nambaaduvan refuses to break his promise and proceeds to meet his death.
When the Rakshasa meets him again, his mood has changed. He now demands that Nambaaduvan
give over to him not his physical body but the Punyam (Fruits of good deeds) he has acquired from
his musical offerings to Nambi Perumal. Nambaaduvan refuses and then is told that the Rakshasa is
really a Brahmin who has attracted a curse because of his arrogance and who would be redeemed
from the curse by a chandala.
The story has an unusual element in that it points to the special place music and dance has in
religious worship in temple societies of ancient times. The divisions of caste and class were blurred
when it came to the purity of a devotee's intent. Similar to the practice connected with Vaikunta
Ekadasi, devotees would fast and stay awake during the night of the Kaiski Ekadasi and listen to
music and dance in praise of Nambi Perumal (the name given to Lord Vishnu in Thirukurungudi in
Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu). This was an act of great piety.
Early in 1996, Na. Muthuswami, well known Tamil theatre activist and Director of
Koothu-p-Pattarai, came to see me with Prof. S Ramanujam of Tanjavur, respected theatre director
and consultant. The two of them informed me about this one valuable ritual tradition which had
completely declined at the temple in Tirukurungudi which is my native place.
Kaisiki Natakam was performed in Tirukurungudi with great fanfare upto 1955. Due to scholars, as
well as patrons like the late T.V. Sundaram Iyengar, thousands of devotees used to throng the
massive temple in Tirukurungudi on the night of Kaisiki Ekadasi every year. After the demise of
Sundaram Iyengar in 1955, the play, which used to extend for five hours past midnight, seemed to
have lost its appeal, content and audience. I witnessed a performance for the first time in 1996. It
was very poorly attended and, worse, poorly performed. All the performers were weak, aged, and
had completely forgotten their roles.
It is then that I decided to take up a project to revive and revitalize the Kaisiki Natakam tradition.
When the project was first begun in June 1996, the tradition was almost extinct. Five artists whose
family had performed this ritual play annually at Tirukurungudi were old, feeble and had forgotten
almost all the words and movements. More over the script for the play was not available. In the
event, it had to be traced from various sources. The first part was received from Tirunarayanan,
Manager of the temple. The other part was traced to Narayanan Kambar, the artist who had
performed the role of the nattuvanar who lived now in Nanguneri, a neighbouring village. A palm
leaf manuscript of the natakam was subsequently found at the Jeeyar's mutt in Tirukurungudi
After tracing the entire text, we began the reconstruction of the music. This step by step process
required the composition of few songs and some verses in Carnatic ragas, based on the rules of
ancient Tamil songs. Well known vaishanavite scholar Dr. Venkatakrisnan's audio cassettes
rendition of the Kaisiki Natakam was used as a reference guide during the long dialogues between
the Brahma Rakshasa and the devotee Nambaaduvan.
But all this was not enough. Since there were very few traces of the script, music, movement, and
style, we had to undertake a complete re-creation of the play. Prof. Ramanujam had extensive
discussions with musicologist in Chennai, natyacharya Herambanathan of Tanjavur and musician of
the Mellatur Baghavatha Mela. Out of these discussion emerged a framework. Herambanathan
identified some musicians and dancers from Thanjavur who, in the event became the first core
group to learn the music and movement of the re-constructed Kaisiki Natakam. All the performers
were given a background briefing and an orientation course on Kaisiki Natakam. Vinod, a college
student who performs in the Bhagavata mela Natakams was asked to do the role of the Brahma
Rakshasa. All the new artists who are based in Tanjavur were taken to Tirukurungudi to meet the
traditional performers of Kaisiki Natakam at the Nambi temple. This visit made a great impact on
both the groups. Many new discoveries about the dance, music and dialogue were made during
casual conversations with the traditional artists and the local residents. Later, we also included
Dorai Amma, a very well known Devadasi of Tanjavur and one of the original performers in the
Sarabendra Bhoopala Kuravanji, in the revival project.
A prototype of the reconstructed Kaisiki Natakam was revealed to a group of writers, theatre
directors, musicians and dramateurs from Chennai, Tanjavur and Madurai on 15th September 1999
at the Venkatesa Perumal Sannidhi in Tanjavur. It was accepted by everyone and it was agreed
that the artists would work towards a full-length performance in Tirukurungudi on Kaisiki Ekadasi on
19 November 1999. On Kaisiki Ekadasi day a very large crowd gathered at the Tirukurungudi
temple. Before the commencement of the Kaisiki Natakam, I performed a special dance
programme called Natya Aradhana. The dance, the text of which consisted of ten paasurams
hymns about Tirukurungudi selected from the Divyaprabandam, was dedicated to Nambi Perumal.
Hundreds of school children from the neighbouring towns attended the performance between 8 and
Kaisiki Natakam began at 9.30 pm, after this dance, with 22 actors and musicians from Thanjavur
sharing the stage with five traditional Tirukurungudi performers. All five of the traditional
Tirukurungudi performers performed although one of them came to the stage briefly due to
weakness and old age. She was 84 year old Ramanuji Ammal who used to take the role of Nambi
Perumal disguised as the old man. Her artistic colleague also belonging to the Isai Velalar
community Kurungudi Amma aged 77, was a once celebrated performer who had even danced as
temple idols where taken around in processions. Even today some residents of Tirukurungudi recall
her dazzling prowess in dance and music.
The large crowd of 3000 persons witnessed a historic re-enactment of Kaisiki Natakam, which
lasted for 3 hours and 15 minutes. Virtually all were moved to tears by the excellent performance
of all the artists - and especially those of Vinod as Rakshasa and Muthulakshmi as Nambaaduvan.
While the first phase of the project to re-construct and revive the Kaisiki Natakam was thus
successfully completed its revitalization is still in progress.
For this purpose, video and photo documentation of the
performance has been done. A microfilm
version is being prepared by the Saraswathi Mahal Library in
Thanjavur. Work is now underway to
strengthen the music and movement portions of the performance.
Specialists in each area are
being enlisted to work with the artists and the musicians to
reconstruct the entire five hour ritual
drama. For this year's celebrations, one eminent dancer will
participate with the dance offering (Natya Aradhana) inside the temple
precincts after which the Kaisiki Natakam will commence at
about 9.30 pm and extend until 2 am in the next morning.
The Reconstruction Process: Important Details
Some important details about the reconstruction and revival of the Kaisiki Natakam:
The traditional raga or pann called Kaisika or Kausika is the predominant raga in this ritual play.
According to musicologists like Vaithialingam, many other raga-s like Malahari, Gandharam, Nata,
Dhanyasi and Vasanta, were also utilised in the play.
The original palm-leaf script of the Kaisiki Natakam was written by Veerabhadra Nattuvanar in the
There are 40 paasuram-s on the Tirukurugudi Nambi perumal in the Divya Prabandham.
Tirukurungudi was at one time under the control of the Travancore royal family. After the formation
of the Madras Presidency, the court's hold over the temple weakened but Namboodri priests
continued to conduct worship at the temple.
The research and reconstruction efforts are concentrated in Tanjavur at the Bhavupillai Natya
school whose director Herambanathan is a traditional natyacharya. His mother-in-law, Doraikannu,
alias Revathy, is also an integral part of the process. She is making an invaluable contribution with
her experience and cultural memory of the ritual dance in temples.
Traditional dancers are too old, weak and unable to remember anything substantial on which to
base the reconstruction. In the circumstances, only Bharatanatyam and Bhagavata Mela traditions
have been used as starting points of movement and abhinaya explorations. The purpose is not to
superimpose one or both styles on Kaisiki Natakam but use them as springboards for free
After seeing the first revival performance of the Kaisiki Natakam on 19th November 1999, elderly
residents of the Tirukurungudi have made valuable inputs. Several women have come forward and
offered their earlier memories of how the actors would move or speak, their tone and their
mannerisms. All the suggestions have been recorded and noted for implementation in Phase II of